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The Sleep of the Just

I try not to use the word I. I try not to be too "self-referential" or self-consciously "literary." But 1997 wasn't exactly the kind of movie year that made me feel "cinematic." As I looked over my writing for the past year, I was struck by how often I used the pathetic word just -- not the synonym for "fair" or "right" but rather the synonym for "merely." Typically I described the characters in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as "just the wilted remnants left in an abandoned flower-shop refrigerator," and I called the film's director and screenwriter "brutal yard boys, just mowing a coarse and ugly path through a wild and unpredictable growth of madcap mores." I noted that Richard Gere's performance in Red Corner "isn't just self-contained, but vacuum-packed." After quoting the Chinese legal motto in that movie ("Leniency for those who confess. Severity for those who resist."), I asked, "How about leniency for those who just want a good movie?" And that was the central critical question of 1997.

Both the big studios and the independents got stuck in their respective sewers of cliche: conflagrations, computer graphics, and crazy comedies in the case of the former; dysfunctional families, kooky proles, and dropouts (whether foreign, as in The Full Monty, or domestic, as in Box of Moonlight) -- plus period floss-and-dross (Mrs. Brown) -- for the latter. Some of the most highly promoted and lauded films from either big-studio or indie filmmakers, such as Titanic and Boogie Nights, turned out to be sorry excuses for "events." What I want from a movie such as Titanic, or from any reality-based disaster film, are the facts of life and death -- and "the reasons why." That's what I got: unfortunately not from James Cameron's $200 million megaepic but instead from watching again the 1958 British black-and-white classic A Night to Remember, which calmly laid out the ship's misfortunes.

Working with nearly two additional hours of screen time than was afforded the '58 film, Cameron doesn't even touch on crucial elements that the British team conveyed as a matter of course: like the presence of another ship, the Californian, only ten miles away, maddeningly oblivious to the Titanic's distress calls because 24-hour radio operation wasn't yet required. Cameron so single-mindedly wants to blame the ship's demise on upper-crust arrogance and sloppiness -- on the owner's determination to make headlines by reaching New York City in record time -- that he slights the array of details that would actually catch you up in an absorbing web of suspense. He doesn't give much credence to the traditional R.M.S. Titanic myth of honest boatmen doing their professional duty, and aristocrats and plutocrats alike behaving according to the standards of high-society chivalry. So instead of people staring into the face of their mortality and trying to keep their footing when their world takes a catastrophic tilt, Cameron provides unrelieved chaos and the sham romanticism of vagabond artist Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) saving the body and soul of Philadelphia crumpet Rose (Kate Winslet). Billy Zane, as Winslet's sadistic fiance, is so obviously sexually confused that I expected him to put on a dress when escaping with the women and children. No such luck: Apart from the penny-dreadful dialogue, Titanic isn't even good for a laugh.

And what of Boogie Nights? People desperate for amusement -- or somehow genuinely tickled -- argued that this candy-colored promenade through the Seventies' porn boom was something other than an inflated version of the alternative-family fantasies that have inundated art theaters in the Nineties. I agreed with porn aficionado and Salon columnist Susie Bright, who wrote, "With as much affection as [Director Paul Thomas] Anderson shows for his little porn stars, they sure are a bunch of dopes. They are so stupid -- it's like one big, unending Polish joke. If you have a big dick, you must be an idiot."

With few exceptions the handful of prestige moviemakers who possess the clout to do an artist's work have ascended to a gassy high ground. If Buddhism encourages its followers to remain focused and serene amidst a welter of contemporary complexities, it inspires directors such as Jean-Jacques Annaud in Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese in his Dalai Lama hagiography Kundun to evade complexities altogether in favor of exotic filigree. The erudition of the East becomes fodder for designer religion, a sort of Gucci Buddhism. It resembles nothing more than the "Circle of Life" in the once-again-hot The Lion King, supposedly moving us all "From despair and hope/Through faith and love/... In the circle of life."

Buddhists want to free us from our egos. That may be a noble goal for most people and a necessary one for Oliver Stone, who once described himself as an "incipient Buddhist" (before tanking with U-Turn). But it's generally a fatal one for directors, who forget everything they know about human nature once they partake of cosmic wisdom. Kundun gives nonviolence a bad name: In it the Dalai Lama doesn't even seem to master nonviolent resistance -- his version comes off as glorified passivity.

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Michael Sragow

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